Groundhog Day in the North and dog days in the Republic
Fury about flying the flag is not the whole story, says a veteran reporter
In a week that saw a number of Belfast’s citizenry tear their hometown apart in protest at a flag’s absence from a civic institution, it was unsurprising to hear the opinion that Northern Ireland was for the birds.
When Eamonn Mallie evoked the avian world in relation to the North on Today With Pat Kenny (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), however, it was in an optimistic, if somewhat bizarre, spirit. “There’s an awful lot of normality here,” the veteran journalist told Kenny. “I’m just looking out into the garden, and the bullfinches are back. They were here last year, and I love to see them. Life goes on.”
Mallie’s flight of fancy put the recent disturbances over the Union Jack’s removal from City Hall into some perspective. Despite nightly reports that portrayed “a country in flames”, Kenny’s guest said that the trouble was “relatively minor” compared with past traumas and that those involved would eventually step back from the brink.
Mallie’s idyllic snapshot provided some reassurance, but his chirpy sanguinity was overshadowed by local politicians haranguing each other on Tuesday’s Talkback (BBC Radio Ulster, weekdays).
Its presenter, Wendy Austin, spoke to a panel of Belfast councillors – “We’ve enough people in the studio for a small flag protest,” Austin quipped – whose rhetoric about respect for different cultures could not paper over deep divisions.
Austin’s guests agreed that torching cars was bad, but that was where the consensus ended. Unionist representatives accused republicans of ratcheting up political pressure in the local chamber and Sinn Féin opined that mainstream unionists had shown no leadership, before more atavistic arguments inevitably kicked in. Lee Reynolds of the DUP said inquiries into past atrocities were skewed towards the nationalist side while Orange Order marching routes were being restricted. It was hardly a catalogue of repression, but, as Austin noted, if people perceive grievances to be real, they effectively are.
Jim McVeigh of Sinn Féin derided “people who complain about democratic decision [about the flag removal] but have little time to condemn people who have caused the trouble”: so much for his party’s past mantra about avoiding the “politics of condemnation”. With the opponents talking over each other, Austin did a good job of breaking up the clinches. But she sounded weary at the well-rehearsed arguments of both sides, comparing the whole debate to Groundhog Day. It was a dispiriting snapshot of knee-jerk intractability when initiative and imagination were required.
If there was a glimmer of hope, it came from the many texters who vented their frustration at the politicians’ failure to control the situation, at the expense of local business life. “The people out there trying to make a living want to know how you’re going to deal with this, not [to hear you] raising more issues,” bemoaned Austin. Which was almost certainly true, but such reasonable voices are too often drowned out.